STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Kids learn really important stuff in kindergarten. One of the biggest things they learn is showing up. It matters a lot for their education that they make it to school every day. Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest school district, is taking kindergarten attendance seriously, targeting kids who are missing 10 or 20 or 30 or even more days of that crucial first year. Deepa Fernandes reports from our member station KPCC.
HUGO VILLAVICENCIO: Good afternoon, boys and girls.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Good afternoon.
DEEPA FERNANDES, BYLINE: Hugo Villavicencio is a bouncy, effervescent man. And right now, he's a man with a single mission - reverse the tardy attendance of kindergartners at one South LA elementary school.
VILLAVICENCIO: You know why I'm here?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yes.
VILLAVICENCIO: Why am I here?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Prizes.
VILLAVICENCIO: Prizes, for whom?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Somebody who's here every day.
VILLAVICENCIO: For the boys and girls who have been here every day. And I want to thank...
FERNANDES: He's holding court in front of a room of kindergartners. Well, actually they're kind of fixated on his brightly colored treasure box. And he's picking winners from a bunch of Popsicle sticks with the kids' names on them.
VILLAVICENCIO: And the first person is LaMaya.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Not here.
VILLAVICENCIO: What happened to LaMaya?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: She's absent.
VILLAVICENCIO: She's absent.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: She went to the doctor.
FERNANDES: Winter colds, extended trips to family's home countries and even unusual work schedules for parents are reasons why attendance in kindergarten is a big problem at Weemes Elementary School.
VILLAVICENCIO: It takes them four days on average to catch up on what they might have missed in one day. That means that in the whole school year, a student should not be absent more than seven times. Unfortunately, for this school, we had less than half of the kids reaching that goal.
FERNANDES: And so Villavicencio's job is solely focused on kindergarten attendance.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
FERNANDES: Mr. V., as the kids know him, has finished handing out his prizes for perfect attendance. Now he's on to his second strategy - peer pressure inside each class to get every kid to show up every day.
VILLAVICENCIO: Sorry for the interruption. But guess what I'm bringing back?
(SOUNDBITE OF KIDS CHEERING)
FERNANDES: And the winner gets a trophy.
VILLAVICENCIO: You guys got it back. Mr. Burnett had it for five whole days, but your attendance was so good last week that I have to bring this back to the champions for the week.
FERNANDES: So what are you looking at right here?
VILLAVICENCIO: I'm looking at the attendance performance meter from last year's data and I'm analyzing the way that we have been so far this school year. And the lowest point was December. December was the month when we had 52 percent attendance.
FERNANDES: January is not much better. Across LA, the problem is huge. In 2012, almost 10,000 kids were chronically absent from kindergarten. Last school year, it improved, but just a bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
FERNANDES: It's now mid-morning and the other part of his job is underway. Mr. V. begins his round of calls to parents of absent kids.
VILLAVICENCIO: This is Mr. Villavicencio, calling you from Weemes Elementary.
FERNANDES: Turns out it's a wrong number, which is not unusual, he tells me. Pay-as-you-go phones are common for the very low-income families here and numbers change constantly.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
VILLAVICENCIO: This is Mr. Villavicencio. We just spoke on Friday.
FERNANDES: Mr. V. is slumped in his chair, his hand cradling his head.
VILLAVICENCIO: She has missed more than 30 days, correct.
FERNANDES: As he's about to call another parent, one mom he's been trying to reach, Zaida Ayala, shows up. Her son started kindergarten, but almost immediately began missing days.
ZAIDA AYALA: Well, I live far and I don't have transportation. I would always come on bike to come and drop him off in the mornings.
FERNANDES: So basically it's pretty hard because you don't have a car?
FERNANDES: Ayala's had a lot of conversations with Mr. V. about her son's attendance. I ask her, what do you think when they say to you that the research shows that if you miss a lot of kindergarten, you'll probably drop out of school?
AYALA: That does kind of scare me. Earlier when he used to miss a lot, my son would tell me oh, mommy, you have to take me to school every day.
FERNANDES: Ayala herself did not finish high school. She says she wants her son to do better than she did, so she's looking for a job so she can buy a car. The day's not over yet. One last tour through the classrooms for Mr. V, one last shot to get kids to show up the next day.
VILLAVICENCIO: Remember, come to school every day. Boys and girls, thank you very much.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Bye.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Bye, Mr. V.
FERNANDES: And with that, he's out. For NPR News, I'm Deepa Fernandes in Los Angeles.
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